By Colleen M. Werner
My eating disorder first started to develop when I was still a child. I heard negative comments about my body from several trusted adults for most of my early childhood, including my pediatrician telling me that I needed to eat more salads and my grandfather telling me that I was built like a linebacker. I watched countless people around me immerse themselves in diet culture and hate their bodies. At 10 years old, I decided that I needed to start dieting.
One morning, I found a Weight Watchers book in my living room. I soaked in the information and decided that even though the book said it should only be used by those over 18, I was special and it didn’t apply to me. That day was the first time I ever engaged in eating disorder behaviors. Looking back, I feel so much compassion and sadness for little 10-year-old me. I thought that what I was doing was going to make me worthier and that it would make the negative comments and intrusive thoughts stop. However, I didn’t realize that I was perfect just as I was and that measuring my Rice Krispies and getting on and off a scale compulsively wasn’t going to make my life better—it was just going to create an even larger firestorm in my brain.
As the years went by, my eating disorder intensified. My perfectionistic personality, my natural high sensitivity to emotions, life stressors like my parents’ divorce and surviving trauma, and my intensive dance training created the perfect storm for my eating disorder to dig its claws deeper into my brain. My eating disorder behaviors completely took over my life. All I could think about was food and exercise. As my body shrank, I received more praise. Everyone told me I looked amazing and asked how I was doing it. Little did they know that I was destroying my body and my mind, all in an effort to gain control and cope with things that I simply couldn’t handle. This praise made me feel like what I was doing was normal and okay, even though it was tearing me apart. At 19 years old, I finally realized that I wanted to take my life back. I was done with my eating disorder dictating my life, and I chose to enter therapy.
While professional help was crucial to my recovery, mental health advocacy played (and still plays) a huge role as well. My advocacy efforts started off small by creating an Instagram account where I shared things like going to my first therapy session and different struggles I faced in my recovery journey. I made a post sharing how the dance world contributed to my battles with food and body image, and several media outlets wrote about it. I began volunteering at various organizations that work on mental health and eating disorders, and now work as the social media manager for one of them, Project HEAL, a nonprofit that provides access to healing for all people with eating disorders. Being so dedicated to my advocacy efforts was one of my biggest motivators in maintaining my eating disorder recovery. I knew that if I slipped back into eating disorder behaviors, I wasn’t going to be able to help others in the way I wanted to. Immersing myself in mental health advocacy gave me an outlet where I could be open about my mental health and motivate myself to continue pushing forward in my recovery so that I could continue doing what I was passionate about.
One of my proudest advocacy moments was being invited to speak alongside Cynthia Germanotta (President and co-founder of Born This Way Foundation), Paul Gionfriddo (President and CEO of MHA), and Kelly Davis (Director of Peer Advocacy, Support, and Services at MHA) during the closing plenary of MHA’s 2018 Annual Conference in Washington, DC. I never imagined that my recovery would bring me to sharing my journey at a major mental health conference with hundreds of mental health professionals and advocates in attendance. This moment made me realize that I can change the world and that I am worthy of my own support.
Becoming a mental health advocate helped me own my story and struggles and dig deeper into my healing than I ever thought possible. Knowing that I needed to stay well in order to continue my advocacy efforts kept me motivated to tackle the gnarly roots of my eating disorder, instead of just being satisfied with surface level progress like no longer engaging in behaviors. Advocating for my own healing and connecting with others showed me that while full recovery from an eating disorder was going to be painstakingly difficult, it was possible.
Colleen M. Werner is a mental health advocate, public speaker, eating disorder recovery coach, and eating disorder therapist-in-training. Her personal experiences with anorexia nervosa, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and trauma led her to want to turn her struggles around to both inspire and help others in similar situations. Her work has been published by HuffPost, The Mighty, Channel Kindness, the National Eating Disorders Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, Project HEAL, and HerCampus. Her debut book, Brave Girl Healing, will be published by Eliezer Tristan Publishing in early 2019. Learn more about Colleen at www.colleenmwerner.com and find her on social media as @colleenmwerner.